Moderating Class Discussions

The discussion is a suitable teaching method for activating your students and for stimulating their oral and written language production, either during a class discussion or an online discussion. This Education Tip focuses on class discussions – how to initiate them, how to keep them going and moderate them, and on online discussion forums.


How to Moderate a Discussion? 

The moderator mediates the debate without choosing sides or taking a stance on content-related issues. In other words, the moderator mainly presides over the debate’s procedure and process,and s/he is responsible for starting the debate and to keep it going.

How to Launch a Discussion? 

Launching a discussion is not always easy. Always make sure that students have enough information to take a start in the discussion. Provide background information in your lectures, or start with a guest speaker and identify one element from the lecture as starting point. Another possibility is to ask an initial  (and controversial) question or to share an (personal) experience.

If your students are relucant to ask questions, or to express controversial opinions, try out more accessible forms of interaction. Make sure students do not have to place themselves in a vulnerable position. The ensuing discussion will run all the more smoothly afterwards. Possible methods for launching a discussion are:

  • statements or multiple-choice questions. If necessary, use digital voting systems so that everyone has to participate;
  • ask students to discuss specific statements/assignments/questions in groups of two to four students. Afterwards, ask them to explain their views to the class;
  • let students think for themselves first and then consult with their neighbour. Hold a plenary discussion afterwards. This is the think-pair-share strategy;
  • ask a small group of students to hold a debate in front of the class while the others listen. Invite the rest of the students to join the discussion afterwards. This is the fish-bowl strategy;
  • one-minute paper: ask students to write down which idea is most interesting to them, or what is still unclear. Ask them to do so on a post-it and in one sentence. Discuss some of those post-its afterwards;
  • if you want to start a discussion after the students have been listening to a lecture, advise them to write down questions throughout the lecture. They may even hand those questions to the speaker beforehand;
  • clearly indicate when it is time to ask questions. Say, for example, "You undoubtedly have questions. Now is the time to ask them, or "What questions do you have?" Avoid saying "Are there any questions?" That would kill the debate as students can easily answer with "no";
  • prepare your own questions to break the ice in case students do not come up with questions right away.

How to Involve All Students in a Discussion?

During a class discussion, you expect or would like all students to speak at least once. Usually, this does not happen naturally: some students need more encouragement than others to participate in the conversation. Below are some strategies that might help you to involve all students:

  • ask the students to write down their arguments first, and discuss those in group afterwards. That way, you give them all a chance to think;
  • make sure that slower students have a chance at contributing, too. For example, use phrases like:
    • "I appreciate your comments, but I also would like to hear the opinions of others";
    • "I'm going to listen to... and then I’ll come back to you";
  • give some students explicit opportunities to speak: use a closed question as a stepping stone to more questions/contributions;
  • be alert to small non-verbal signals from quieter students and then offer them the chance to have their say. Do you see a student nodding in agreement? Then say, "I see you agree. Would you like to explain your opinion?" Or the other way around, "Am I right that you disagree with this statement? Why?";
  • call on students to answer a specific question. In so doing, you prevent the same students from doing all the talking.


How to Ask Students Strong Discussion Questions? 

  • avoid asking questions that only have one correct answer. That type of questions may come across as intimidating. Try asking open-ended questions instead. For example:
      • "can you substantiate your choice?"
      • "what impact does this idea have on your work as a sociologist?";
      • "can you summarize the most interesting idea in couple of words or one sentence?"
      • "how would you apply this in practice?"
      • "can you put into words the most important conclusion?"
      • "there are pros and cons: can you give one of each?”
      • "can you summarize what you have learnt in three points?”
      • "can you summarize what has been said so far?" (Use this type of intervention to keep everyone on the same wavelength);
  • provide questions/statements that allow for sufficient controversy;
  • ask students to find arguments to defend a point of view that is different from their personal views. This forces them to look at a topic from different perspectives. Allow them to discuss their personal views later on.

Please note that spending too much time with (the opinions/questions of) one particular student as this will cause the rest of the audience to disengage.

How to Organize a Discussion? 

  • formulate the conversation rules together with the students. What will the students’ role be? What will your role as moderator be? What will the guest speaker’s role be?
  • ask the guest speaker to prepare questions or statements, or use questions that students have posted on the forum;
  • be prepared: what (kind of) questions do you expect from your students? How will you deliver those questions to the speaker: will you alter or restructure them first, will you delineate the question topics, etc...? It is difficult to predict which course a discussion will take. Clearly specifcy which questions you expect to receive, which aspects of a specific topic will or will not be covered, etc... . It is up to you as a moderator to offer a scope for the discussion;
  • do not break the moments of silence! It gives students time to think;
  • divide the lecture halls into different parts. Let students from one part of the lecture hall answer first, and then the other part. This method is compelling but still acceptable for students. They will know that everyone will take turns in answering;
  • divide an open-ended question into different parts. Ask students to answer the question in groups of two to four, and discuss them together afterwards. Give each group the same question, or ask the different groups to approach the same problem statement from another perspective. Compare the solutions in a plenary discussion;
  • ask students to take notes. For example, ask them to formulate a problem statement, to write down prior knowledge about a problem and possible solutions, to assess the quality of the solutions or to write a conclusion;
  • address the students by name;
  • make a summary conclusion at the end of the discussion or ask students to make a summary. Ask one student to start and let others pitch in;
  • respect the scheduled end of the lesson and finish on time. This way you avoid people leaving in the middle of the debate.

UGent Practices

Last modified Sept. 1, 2021, 3:56 p.m.